Southern California is a very big place -- but not big enough for Shaq and Kobe.
The Lakers had to trade one of the two. They disliked each other plenty, and anything else you hear is either spin or a lie. And while the Lakers have continued to be the No. 1 attraction in basketball, the fact remains they lost in the second round of the playoffs two seasons ago and were tossed out of the NBA Finals like a bunch of stiffs a month ago. Kobe and Shaq were done winning championships together, they didn't like playing with one another and it was killing the team. So why force Shaq to come back just because he's under contract? What would be the purpose in that, if you're the owner, other than proving who's the boss? The Lakers aren't the Wizards. It's not their goal to make the second round of the playoffs.
Personally, if I were running the Lakers I'd have spent all of my energy trying to persuade Kobe Bryant to accept a trade to Orlando for Tracy McGrady, so that I could pair McGrady with Shaq and keep the big man teamed with a perimeter player who could do everything. And however flawed McGrady is, he's still the closest thing to Kobe there is in the NBA and a Lakers team with Shaq and T-Mac would have seriously contended.
But Jerry Buss, the Lakers' owner, loves Kobe. Buss made it clear to everybody in L.A., starting with his staff, that he planned to keep Kobe. And Kobe wasn't going to play with Shaq. If the Lakers had committed to keeping Shaq, Kobe would have exercised his right as a free agent and walked. Kobe wasn't going to stay and be coached by Phil Jackson, either. So Jackson and now Shaq have been shown the door.
Shaq is 32 years old with the mileage of an '82 Volvo.
Kobe is 25 and in the physical prime of his career.
Shaq had no real relationship with Buss. The owner's favorite is Kobe, and there's nobody around like The Great Jerry West to change Buss's mind or make him come up with a compromise solution.
Is it a particularly good trade the Lakers have made?
No. These deals where one big star is traded for three or four nice players never work for the team getting rid of the star. The Milwaukee Bucks traded Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and haven't been back to the Finals in the 30 years since. The 76ers needed eight years to recover from trading Charles Barkley, who went to the Finals in his very first season in Phoenix.
Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and Caron Butler were the nucleus of a dynamic young playoff team that came out of nowhere last season. But not one of 'em has been an all-star yet. All three together can't impact a game the way Shaq does on an average day.
Seems to me the Lakers would have been better off dealing with the Mavericks and getting Antoine Walker, Steve Nash and a couple of those young Mavs, say Josh Howard and newly drafted point guard Devan Harris. Forget the notion that the Lakers would deal with Sacramento, its primary rival in the division, a contentious in-state rival at that.
It's not like Shaq is walking into a loaded team in Miami, either. But at least the Heat will be able to sell tickets now, Dwayne Wade will be an even bigger threat, and Shaq ought to have a career renaissance under Pat Riley. I expect to see, come November, a more fit, re-dedicated, razor-sharp Shaq who expects everybody in his way to pay dearly for him being disrespected and turned out of Los Angeles.
And who better to fine-tune that chip-on-the-shoulder attitude than Riley, who helped Kareem play into his forties, and subsequently got the best out of Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning? It's just the kick-start Shaq's career needs, and it's a lot better than taking the easy way out and staying in L.A. to soak up the adoration while the team turned to a pile of junk.
I don't blame Shaq for demanding a trade. Don't get me wrong, Shaq can be All-Self-Centered, even on a team of self-absorbed divas. But it was inexcusable for GM Mitch Kupchak to say publicly that Kobe was untradable and in the next say he would hate to trade Shaq, but would do so.
When Kupchak made that statement the day before the departure of Jackson, anybody who knew Shaq knew his Lakers days were over. And while Buss, who is in Italy riding out the storm, may deserve the blame for letting go the Greatest GM ever, the greatest big man since Olajuwon and one of the two greatest coaches ever, it's Kupchak who's going to suffer the consequences if this doesn't work. West would have fixed this a while ago. Shaq himself said one night in Denver that if West was still aboard there would be "no problems" with "the coach, the Diesel, or with the Kobe-ster."
Well, the problems don't exist anymore, because everybody is gone except Kobe, who still hasn't signed with the Lakers, who still is facing a sexual assault trial and possible extended jail time.
Suppose Kobe signs with the Clippers? Kupchak would have presided over the team while it waived goodbye to all its assets: West, Jackson, Shaq and Kobe.
It's a cautionary tale, the disintegration of the Lakers. Come November it appears they will in no way resemble the team that has fascinated us for the last five years. Shaq's Miami Heat won't be the favorite in the Eastern Conference. Kobe's Lakers won't be the favorite in the Western Conference. Each wants to prove he can win a championship without the other. But the guess here is that each will find out how hard it is to win without the other and the only rings they'll have on their fingers in the end are the ones they earned as Lakers. Apparently, this lesson will only be learned by experience.